Women, Rivers and Water: a Closely Connected Theme

Youth participants attend a Regional Youth Exchange Storytelling Workshop in Siem Reap. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam
  • Sim Socheata
  • March 14, 2020 2:54 AM

PHNOM PENH--This month, we commemorate International Women’s Day (March 8), the International Day of Actions for Rivers (March 14) and World Water Day (March 22). These annual events and the World Water Day theme this year “Nature and Climate Change” is a timely reminder of the inter-connection between water and climate change.

The world has been experiencing the extreme impacts of climate change not least here in the Mekong region. As a woman development practitioner working with Oxfam on water governance in the Mekong, these March events are a timely reminder to me and us all of the inter-dependencies between women, rivers and water, and pose the challenge whether enough attention is being paid to the inclusion and leadership of women and their game-changing role in water stewardship and river protection. 

In January 2020, I attended a national consultation workshop on the proposed and contested mainstream Luang Prabang hydropower dam project on the lower Mekong River, in Lao PDR. Of the more than 30 participants, there were three women formally invited: a senior woman government officer, a local NGO director, and me. Additionally, five community women from downstream northeastern provinces in Cambodia were invited to the consultation by Oxfam and our partners.

On the one hand, I am appreciative that the organizers thought to invite any women—this is a change in practice—but why were so few women included? Where were the women who ensure family livelihoods from the river, where were the indigenous women who understand the river ecosystem and conservation better than anyone else, and where were the young women water professionals? Sadly, this is not an unusual scenario for water resource practitioners.

The field is perceived as highly technical and a predominantly male-dominated sector. When it comes to the governance of water resources, at whatever level (local, national, regional) we see the same under-representation of women. This cannot be right in 2020.

This is not a gender argument alone. The inclusion of relevant stakeholders must be the key principle for good governance. For Oxfam, water governance means who is and who is not at the decision-making table when resource allocation is being decided: This matters if there is to be equitable access to and control over resources that will have an impact for future generations.

Putting the inclusion of stakeholders with legitimate interests in water-resource development into practice requires political commitment, resource allocation, and changes in how business is conducted.

Women, men, people with different abilities, indigenous people, urban and rural youth across the Mekong region depend heavily and directly or indirectly on the river system and its resources.

But we know from the evidence that their voices, knowledge and aspirations have yet to be adequately taken into consideration when decisions on large-scale water resources development are being made. How can it be right to bear the cost and impact of development (positive or negative) if you have not had a say?   

Regional water cooperation and governance require facilitated processes where stakeholders from upstream and downstream countries and communities have the legitimate space for dialogue and have their interests and concerns heard.

Already this year, communities living along the Mekong have felt the changes in the river and the impact on their lives and livelihoods when two major dams—the Xayaburi and Don Sahong—began operation.

Combined with the impacts of climate change, we witnessed the low level of flow, prolonged drought, and the negative impact on agricultural production, drought in Northern Thailand and erosion in the Mekong delta. Fishing communities in the Mekong and around the Great Lake have experienced decreased fish catches impacting on their livelihoods .

For the Mekong delta in Vietnam alone, the unfolding drought and saltwater intrusion event is a particularly serious one, even more so than the “historical” drought event in 2010-2016, with about 80,000 households experiencing water shortage, and tens of thousands hectares of crops already damaged .

The Mekong region has been known for its ability to produce one of the largest fresh-water fisheries and to be the “rice bowl” of Southeast Asia.

Water connects food production and its security, and sustains the lives and livelihoods of millions. It appears that rapid, water resource development, with a focus on hydropower dams to meet energy needs, will be at the cost of the sustainable use of the rivers, their resources and the interrelation of nature, ecosystem and the people. If continued, we can expect greater inequality within the region and between countries. 

The access-to-water right as a basic human right is being challenged in this new decade. All members of society have a right to participate in water resources development in their community, country and region.  

Women and girls represent over half of the population in this region and it is about time that women’s role as stewards of water in the community and the home and as guardians of the rivers received adequate attention.

Inclusive participation of women in water governance is a non-negotiable condition to achieve the sustainable development goals, but more importantly, a commitment to rights and equality for rights holders.

This month and throughout this decade, Oxfam and our partners will be supporting them to take their place at the decision-making table.

By Sim Socheata

Mekong Water Governance Program, Oxfam

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